A state Senate roiling from turmoil this year was dealt another blow Friday when a Los Angeles judge sentenced Democratic Sen. Rod Wright to three months in jail for lying about where he lived when he ran for office in 2008.
Judge Kathleen Kennedy upheld a jury’s verdicts from January that found Wright guilty of eight felonies, including perjury and voting fraud. She sentenced him to 1,500 hours of community service and three years’ probation in addition to the jail time, which she ordered him to begin on Oct. 31.
From the bench, Kennedy admonished Wright for disrespecting the electoral process when he ran for office claiming a home he owns in Inglewood as his official address, while really living outside the Senate district in the tonier neighborhood of Baldwin Hills.
“I think jurors really have a nose for when someone is lying,” she said, according to an Associated Press report from the courtroom. “It didn’t smell right then, and it doesn’t smell right now. … I think the jury complied with the law and came to the right conclusions.”
The judge said Wright is barred for life from holding elective office. But it didn’t appear Friday that the ban would take effect immediately, leaving open the possibility that Wright may continue to draw his $95,291 annual salary until he steps down or is formally ousted by his Senate colleagues.
They voted in March to suspend him, taking away his ability to perform any legislative duties but maintaining his pay.
Two other Democratic senators suspended on the same day as Wright – Sens. Ron Calderon of Montebello and Leland Yee of San Francisco – are awaiting trial after being indicted in unrelated federal corruption cases. They are likely to continue receiving their salaries until their terms in office expire at the end of this year.
At the time he moved to suspend all three senators, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg said it would be improper to permanently expel Calderon and Yee since they have been charged but not convicted. And in Wright’s case, Steinberg said, a conviction wasn’t final until the judge ruled.
Now that she has, Steinberg called on Wright to resign. But he stopped short of saying he’d call a vote of the Senate to expel him.
“Senator Wright has a right to appeal as a citizen, but his constituents cannot continue without representation in the state Senate. I have stated from the beginning my belief that somebody convicted of a felony while in office cannot continue to serve. I have therefore asked Senator Wright to resign,” said a statement from Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
Republican leader Sen. Bob Huff also called on Wright to resign.
Wright’s attorney said the senator plans to appeal. But because the appeal process will likely take a year and a half to two years, it’s not likely Wright will avoid jail.
“By all probabilities the sentence will be served far before the court of appeals rules,” said his attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson.
McKesson said he had no information on whether Wright planned to step down from the Senate. Wright’s spokeswoman Jennifer Hanson said he would not comment Friday.
Senate officials say only elected lawmakers can boot a fellow legislator from office. If Wright does not step down, they say, it would take another vote of the Senate to expel him and stop his pay. Gov. Jerry Brown will only call for an election to fill Wright’s Senate seat after the office is vacant, said Brown spokesman Jim Evans. The office becomes vacant, he said, if Wright steps down or is expelled.
But the California Constitution says, “Laws shall be made to exclude persons convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, malfeasance in office, or other high crimes from office or serving on juries.” And Rick Hasen, a professor at UC Irvine and an expert in election law, said that based on a 1977 court ruling, he thinks Wright is automatically vacated from office based on the judge’s verdict Friday.
In a case challenging whether former Lt. Gov. Ed Reinecke’s perjury conviction became official when the jury found him guilty in July 1974 or when the judge upheld the jury’s verdict in October 1974, the Court of Appeal wrote that the conviction happened when the judge ruled:
“Thus, on October 2, 1974, and not before, Lieutenant Governor Reinecke automatically forfeited his office and his rights and powers incident thereto. That forfeiture created a vacancy.”
The last time the Senate voted to expel a sitting senator was in 1905, Senate Secretary Greg Schmidt has said. Four lawmakers convicted during the FBI corruption sting in the 1990s resigned before legislators voted to expel them.
Wright’s case marks a rare conviction in an area of the law that has dogged many state legislators – but had not sent them to jail.
California law requires legislative candidates – unlike members of Congress – to live in the district they seek to represent. But with districts redrawn every decade, it’s not uncommon for politicians to claim multiple homes. Many volley between the capital city and their home districts, and some change addresses as district lines move or political ambitions change.
Last year, The Sacramento Bee reported that Democratic Assemblyman Richard Pan did not appear to live in the Pocket-area condo he claimed was his legal home during the 2012 election, but instead spent most nights with his wife and children in Natomas, outside the boundaries of the district he represents. He is now running for state Senate in a district that includes both Natomas and the Pocket.
In December, Republican Sen. Ted Gaines announced he was moving out of Rocklin, where he had rented a home while running for the 1st Senate District, and back to his family’s longtime home in Roseville – outside the district.
In 2012, Republican Sen. Mimi Walters faced a lawsuit from an opponent in her race for an Orange County Senate seat, who alleged she didn’t really live in the Irvine apartment she claimed as her address.
Pan was not charged with a crime. Gaines got permission from Senate officials before he moved. The lawsuit against Walters was thrown out by a judge.
Wright argued that he met all legal requirements to run for office using the Inglewood home he has owned since the 1970s as his official address. Wright testified that he never claimed a homeowners tax exemption, registered to vote or applied for a driver’s license using the Baldwin Hills address.
But prosecutors showed pictures of the Baldwin Hills home, complete with Wright’s cars parked there and closets full of his clothes. Baldwin Hills neighbors testified that they frequently saw him coming and going, while Wright’s Inglewood tenant said she never saw him spend a night in that home.
Wright’s attorneys asked for a new trial, arguing that the prosecution wrongly instructed the jury to consider where Wright “lives” in the colloquial sense, not where he has his “domicile,” a legal term of art that lies at the center of the case. Judge Kennedy rejected their motion for a new trial.
Wright’s conviction for doing the same thing other lawmakers have done without facing prosecution has revealed problems with California’s election laws, several people said Friday.
“How is that equal application of the law?” said Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Democrat who was in the courtroom as Wright was being sentenced. “There is clearly a need to provide some clarification for the protection and safety of all who serve and all who wish to serve.”
Hasen, the law professor, agreed that the selective prosecution of residency violations is problematic for democracy.
“If there is going to be a rule like this, it needs to be applied uniformly across the board,” he said.
But he said he doesn’t expect the Legislature to clarify what he described as a “murky” area of the law.
“This is an issue that can affect self-interests, and that can lead to charges that the legislators are acting politically,” Hasen said. “I don’t count on the Legislature to act.”